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The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA

The Military And The Environment

A Balancing Act As The U.S. Population Swells, The Military Is Finding It Difficult To Peacefully Coexist With Its Civilian Neighbors And To Protect The Natural Resources Where Forces Train


June 4, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Virginian-Pilot and The Ledger-Star, Norfolk, VA. All Rights Reserved.

The Military And The Environment

Hampton Roads residents annoyed, distressed or inconvenienced by roaring jets and other byproducts of the military's presence are not alone.

The Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines are under increasing attack nationwide by civilians and environmental groups. From deserts in the West to forests and wetlands in the East, challenges mount.

Tank drivers at Fort Bliss, Texas, may not exceed 10 mph on nearby practice ranges. EPA monitors write tickets if spinning tank treads kick up too much dust.

At Twentynine Palms, Calif., a desert tortoise in a training area can stop exercises - completely.

On some bases, soldiers on bivouac dig latrines - but merely for practice. They're not allowed to use them. Instead, private contractors truck portable toilets to the camp sites.

Nevada ranchers irritated by jet noise have waged a legal brawl to eliminate a Navy range in Fallon, Nev., one of the few remaining places in the nation where military pilots can practice high-speed maneuvers. Ranchers say jet thunder spooks their livestock.

Closer to home, Virginia Beach and Chesapeake residents near the Oceana and Fentress air fields have stepped up their feud with the Navy over jet noise. They're suing the Navy and enlisting more disgruntled residents. Their case comes before the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond on Wednesday.

A more dramatic showdown occurred on Vieques Island, where squatters closed down a Puerto Rican bombing range for more than a year.

And at a 5,000-acre bombing range 50 miles south of Seoul, South Korea, which has been used for the past 50 years, villagers have finally lost patience with U.S. forces. Six people claimed injuries after a May 8 incident in which a U.S. fighter dropped six bombs on the range, cracking walls and windows in nearby homes.

Some 2,800 residents from 10 villages around the range have since filed a lawsuit seeking $27 million in compensation from their government.

For the military, these events are much more than public relations headaches. Preparing for war takes practice. Without places to simulate war and train troops, the nation's armed forces are jeopardized, military officers say.

The military uses 57 training sites in the United States. It drops live ordnance on 33 range complexes in 14 states, two territories and six foreign countries.

Many of these sites were once remote. But, as the U.S. population swells and more people explore in off-road vehicles, the military finds it increasingly difficult to peacefully coexist with civilian neighbors.

What it all means, said Sherri Goodman, deputy undersecretary of defense for environmental security, is that the military needs to work hard to maintain its premier test and training ranges, and do it in a way that respects the natural resources they impact.

"We are paying increasing attention to it, yes," she said. "I think that across the country, not only for the military . . . that these are just the issues of the day, the issues of this century in many ways."

But the nation also must understand, Goodman said, that "we need to have the best military in the world. Our military readiness is vital."

About 25 million acres of land has been withdrawn from public use throughout the United States over the decades and reserved for military training.

That is down somewhat because of a general downsizing of the defense industry, but it's still mammoth, about the size of Virginia.

Col. Fred Pease, chief of ranges and air space division at Air Force Headquarters in Washington, recalled flying F-15s 20 years ago off Langley Air Force Base in Hampton. He served three tours at the base, where the runways aim toward the Chesapeake Bay.

The training air space was right off the Eastern Shore.

"You flew right there," he recalled. "It was great. It was so close, literally the whole time was spent training."

Bombing sites were operated off Tangier Island and at Bloodsworth Island on the upper Bay. Both were long ago closed to artillery and bomb training, mainly for environmental reasons.

As military installations close, their jets, tanks, ships and troops are concentrated at remaining bases. Nowhere on the East Coast is that more true than in Hampton Roads.

It is increasingly becoming a problem at Oceana Naval Air Station in Virginia Beach.

Oceana is home to 148 F-14 Tomcats and 156 F/A-18 Hornet jets and is the Navy's only master jet base on the East Coast. That means it is the primary provider of aviators and aircraft to the carrier fleet. Oceana has been in Virginia Beach for 50 years, with the number of flights fluctuating, depending on military needs and how many planes are based there.

When the Navy closed Cecil Field in Florida, it moved nearly all the displaced jets to Oceana.

The result is a surge in flight operations at Oceana and nearby Fentress Auxiliary Landing Field in Chesapeake. One group, Concerned Citizens Against Jet Noise, sued the Navy, challenging the adequacy of an environmental impact statement used to place the additional aircraft at the base. Although thrown out in U.S. District Court once, CCAJN appealed; it's their case that is to be heard Wednesday in Richmond.

The Navy, because of the increased activity at Oceana, has altered flight patterns, runway use, landing approach altitudes and takeoff climb-outs in an effort to minimize noise from the jets. The base also broke ground this year for a "hush house," in which jet engines can be quietly tested.

But Concerned Citizens officials remain unswayed. The group has increased efforts to encourage residents to take legal action against the Navy.

Any new lawsuits would be separate from the one filed against the Navy in 1998 by CCAJN.

People aren't the only threat to military bases these days. Endangered wildlife, and environmentally sensitive land and bodies of water restrict and sometimes stymie military practices.

"In most cases, we want to train in realistic range landscapes and settings," Goodman said. "We want to preserve the natural habitat. So we are embarked on an effort of range stewardship, whether it is air, sea or land ranges."

The Pentagon says it is paying more attention to the way its training affects the environment and is taking steps to mitigate its impact.

At Fort Benning, Ga., where troops enter their initial stages of infantry training, there is a significant woodpecker population.

A map, showing the woodpeckers' nesting areas in red, looks as if it were painted with a sponge, one officer said. "Every tree is a nesting area, it seems."

It is at Fort Benning that soldiers are taught how to retreat, or to dig in and stand firm for a fight. But they can't practice digging fox holes just anywhere.

"We have to manage that, and it is a full-time effort," said Bob Anderson, National Resource Program Manager for the Army's Training and Doctrine Command at Fort Monroe.

Fox holes, like latrines, can be dug only in certain areas so as not to damage the environment.

"We have to modify that habitat and plant more long-leaf pine," Anderson said. "We have to remove the hardwood undergrowth that encroaches on the habitat. We even have fish and wildlife people on the installation."

At Fort Huachuca, Ariz., in the Sierra Vista 70 miles southeast of Tucson, the Army runs an Intelligence Center and School.

It has been an Army post since 1877, when it offered protection to settlers from Apache Indians.

The site was selected for its fresh running water, an abundance of trees, high ground for security and excellent observation avenues in three directions.

Today, the fort is being sued because of water use.

Those who want the Army to leave claim the water table is being drawn down by the fort, home to 6,400 soldiers, and by the city of Vista, where new shopping malls and communities are being developed.

"They claim that, but for the presence of the Army, there would not be this growth in the area, which, in turn, is drawing down the river," Anderson said.

If the river dries up, then the Southwest willow flycatcher, a small bird that nests in the trees that line the river, as well as the Huachuca water umbel, a small local plant, likely would die.

"Since we are a federal agency, we fall under the Endangered Species Act, so they can go after the installation, which they have done," Anderson said.

The irony, said Anderson, is that if environmentalists are successful in having Fort Huachuca closed, "they lose a friend to the environment."

The base commander is spending nearly $4 million a year on environmental projects at the fort.

The Army, he said, will likely spend more money on environmental projects at the facility in the future. It already is conserving water, recycling effluent and collecting rain water.

"Even though it is a sensitive area as far as the environment, it is even more critical as a training asset because of the units we have there," said Army Maj. Gary Klob, a spokesman for TRADOC.

"The way the terrain is set up, it is a very ideal environment (in which) to train."

A decade or more of understanding environmental needs has helped overcome many of the military's challenges, said Pam Whitman, an environmental integration specialist with TRADOC.

"We are growing soldiers now who actually understand a requirement out there that they consider what they are doing," she said. "They don't tear down trees just because they can."

Placing a drip pan beneath a military vehicle in the field to catch stray oil is not unusual to the soldier anymore, Whitman said.

"It's automatic," she said. "It will take a long time, maybe 10 years, to actually get people to have a level of sensitivity to this. But this is becoming very successful."

Joel Reynolds, a representative of the Natural Resources Defense Council and a harsh critic of Navy undersea activities, gives credit to military organizations that are concerned about the environment.

"As with any large bureaucracy or large company, there are people who get it and people who don't," he said. "There are progressives, and there are Neanderthals.

"The Navy is no different. You have some very good people in the Navy who understand what the law requires and understand how important environmental protection is. At the same time, you have people, often in the operational units, who don't understand it and view environmental protection as a hindrance, as a nuisance and something to be disregarded. That is what we are fighting. That is where the problem is."

The military also faces increasing competition with civilians for air space.

New technology and improvements in tactical aircraft have forced the military to seek more training area.

"The reason is because the aircraft are more capable now," the Air Force's Pease said.

In 1977, when he first started flying at Langley, F-15 pilots were happy to get a radar "lock" on another plane at a range of 25 miles.

"Now the same plane can get a lock-on at 100 miles," he said.

Yet the flying space allotted for the fighters remains the same.

"It was like fighting in a phone booth," he said. "That's fine if you are using a dagger, but if someone hands you a samurai sword and says go back in the phone booth, you just couldn't do it."

Future aircraft, such as the F-22 Raptor destined for Langley, could extend that range even more, Pease said.

The FAA controls where planes fly over this country and off its shores. Certain air space is reserved for military training, which forces civilian aircraft to go around, increasing flying time and fuel consumption.

The commercial airline industry is eager to get "free flight" permission, which would allow airlines to fly through those military areas, saving airlines and passengers time and money.

"If you want to fly from Norfolk to Dallas, you just figure out where the winds are and fly directly," Pease said of the proposed free flight regulations.

That's fine, he said, so long as the military's air space doesn't shrink because of it.

"I tell our guys if you talk to American people out there, they want to have a strong military. They want to have nice national parks. They want to save endangered species in general. They want to have $300 round-trip tickets from Norfolk to L.A. They want it all."

The FAA predicts the number of airline passengers, estimated at 137.6 million this year for U.S. and foreign flag carriers, will increase 5.1 percent a year, reaching 239.4 million in 2011. The number of flights, including military sorties, will increase from a current 69.4 million per year to 86.9 million by 2011, a 25 percent increase.

The oceans are another place where the military is battling for elbow room. The seas are no longer open to any kind of training. Concerns about marine life and pollution from warships has rallied environmentalists against some Navy practices.

Navy lawyers have been told to expect a lawsuit from a group trying to block the service's use of a low-frequency active sonar system for its ships. It's the same complaint the Navy has twice successfully fought in court. It's also the same sonar system foreign navies already use.

Last month, on Abaco, Grand Bahamas, eight of 14 whales that beached themselves died - prompting an environmental group, Earthwatch Institute, to blame a Navy anti-submarine exercise.

The Navy has denied responsibility, saying it dropped two sonar buoys from a P-3 Orion patrol plane March 14 in a routine submarine hunting exercise. One was dropped 35 miles north of Abaco, the other 70 to 75 miles away. The submarine was between them.

The whale strandings occurred four hours before the Navy conducted the tracking exercise, the Navy maintained.

Officials with the Animal Welfare Institute, however, still contend the pinging of the electronic buoys, in search of the submarine, caused the whales to panic and subsequently die.

The Navy pointed out it has used sonar throughout the world's oceans for more than 80 years and said "there is no evidence that sonars kill whales."

Yet, on May 27, the Navy agreed not to perform high-volume sonar tests off the New Jersey coast, prompting Reynolds, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, to say the Navy's decision marked a significant change.

"We think this is very important," Reynolds said, "because the Navy has now been told it cannot simply reserve a vessel, schedule an exercise and proceed without worry of environmental impacts when dealing with low-frequency systems."

Ordnance exercises, particularly those in which the Navy uses its ships' guns to sink an old vessel, also are under increasing scrutiny.

"We perform over-flights, take acoustical soundings to identify an area," said Gary Edwards, who is responsible for the Atlantic Fleet's environmental programs. "We try to determine whether any mammals are present. We can wait for them to leave, or we can move the exercise. We may have to delay for a short period of time until we find the space is free and open."

Despite the legal scuffles and complaints, military leaders say they do not believe the environmental restrictions will force them to abandon all ranges and test sites. The law, they say, is simply on their side, and national security is too important.

The tussle on Vieques shows the Navy's resolve.

On May 4, U.S. marshals and FBI agents cleared more than 200 people from Navy property on the island. Several dozen demonstrators have been arrested while trying to return to the range. The Navy has beefed up security along the perimeter of its property, and the Coast Guard is enforcing a blockade to keep protesters from reaching the range by sea.

While the Navy prepares to use the range again, albeit with inert bombs, the next step is to schedule a vote that will decide the fate of the 60-year-old facility.

"As you look at all of our efforts, one of the most important is we need to train as we fight," said Cmdr. Jim Lang, an environmental lawyer on the staff of the Norfolk-based Atlantic Fleet.

"The bad guys out there aren't real big on accepting limitations on planes, or tanks, or weapons just to save a whale. We are trying to find the balance."

That balance, say some military officials, includes attempting to keep the public away from established military ranges and testing sites.

"People are coming in and setting up houses, schools and day-care centers on the same places where we need to operate airplanes," Lang said.

"That's what's increasing the scrutiny and the challenges that we are facing. We saw it at Oceana in the 1940s when it was nothing more than an outlying field."

At Pinecastle, Fla., where the Navy shifted some of its aerial bombing exercises when it lost the use of the Vieques ranges in Puerto Rico , the local population is now starting to ask questions about why the military is there.

Most of the questions come from the growing campground population, estimated at 35,000 a year, that is located near the Pinecastle range in the Ocala National Forest.

"A lot of it is driven not by the fact we are doing anything wrong there," said Lang, "but what we do leaves a footprint, and we've got the whole population center coming closer and closer. It is a challenging situation."

Edwards, who oversees the Atlantic Fleet's environmental efforts, said encroachment on ranges and test sites is the biggest challenge facing the Navy today.

"We will always find a way to operate," the Navy's Lang said. "Title 10 (of the U.S. Code) tells us what we are supposed to do as a military. On the one hand, the government tells us, `You will be trained and ready to go.' On the other hand, there are restrictions. . . .

"I do think there will continue to be a push for us to be more careful. I think there are a lot of groups out there trying to do the right thing, but we become the focal point of pressure. We will continue to engage those people and compromise where we can."

Lang is one of about 20 Navy lawyers trained in environmental law. He hopes there is no need for more.

"We need to remember why it is we exist," he said, "so the people who wear wings, surface warfare and dolphins (insignia) can go defend democracy.

"I am an enabler for that.

"If the day ever comes when there are more of me than there are of them, we'll know our priorities are way out of whack."

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